Initiatives to combat food wastage: a waste of time?
The European Parliament has designated 2014 as the European Year against Food Waste. And these Western public representatives are not the only ones that have recently picked up the theme. Worldwide initiatives on food wastage by organizations, enterprises and governments are mushrooming and the Netherlands is no exception: a recent study on this theme conducted within the Dutch Food & Business Knowledge Platform (F&BKP)
Many of these initiatives claim to help eradicate worldwide hunger by reducing wastage. The European Parliament, for example, says in a resolution against food wastage “reducing food waste is a significant preliminary step in combating hunger in the world”. In a reaction to a report earlier this year, World Bank president Jim Yong Kim also suggested a direct link between food wastage and hunger, saying “millions of people around the world go to bed hungry every night, and yet millions of tons of food end up in trash cans or spoiled on the way to market”. In a similar vein, the website of a congress organized by the Dutch Ministries of Foreign and Economic Affairs says “there are nearly one billion malnourished people in the world. These people could be lifted out of malnourishment on less than a quarter of the food that is wasted in the US, UK and Europe.”. And Gerda Verburg, the Dutch Permanent Representative to FAO, IFAD and WFP tweeted last year: “total loss and waste of food is enough to feed all the world’s hungry four times over!”.
This all sounds perfect: it would be easy to think that we have finally found a concrete and feel-good way to make short work of ending worldwide hunger. Yet, is it feasible to live up to all these claims? The F&BKP study also explored what we know about the relationship between wastage interventions and food security, in particular in poor countries. Despite the limited number of studies that seem to exist, some conclusions can be drawn.
One is that, even though the reduction of wastage in Western countries would theoretically result in increased overall availability of food to individuals, it is unclear how and to what extent this will reach poor people. In any case, claims about the direct effects of reducing waste in the West on food security often prove not to be realized. This specifically counts for food supplies, livelihoods and food prices in developing countries. Producers who cut food losses may in the short term even face significant additional costs resulting from their reduction measures and the increased use of energy to preserve their food products. The only study that has systematically researched the concrete effects on food security is by M. Rutten and Y. Waarts of Wageningen University. It shows that a 40% reduction in waste during retail and consumption in the EU would, in the medium-long term, lead to a very small but positive increase in food consumption (0,04%) and a decrease in food prices (0,2%) in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Donating food residues to people in need has shown positive effects in the short term, but this does not relate to transfers from Western to developing countries. Moreover, it tends to lead to problems of stigmatization of recipients, a gap between acquisition and demand, legal requirements regarding liability and market saturation.
On the other hand, activities to reduce pre- and post-harvest losses, such as technical solutions in agro-logistics, do sometimes show a direct impact on short-term food security in developing countries, and especially on the availability of food. This nevertheless depends heavily on circumstances like the potential of a viable business case, storage facilities, infrastructure, means of transport, market access and an enabling political and institutional environment. Interventions at local level in smallholder agriculture, like providing silos or protection against rodents, have shown positive effects on food availability in certain contexts (silos are a notable success in Central America, but not to the same extent in Africa). To a lesser extent, such interventions also deliver an impact on other aspects of food security, including access, utilization and the stability of the food system.
However, in the longer term, there is ample reason to believe that reducing and reusing wastage may indeed have a positive impact on resource efficiency, the environment and consequently, general food security. Yet the effects, in particular those in developing countries, depend on what the saved resources will be used for instead, on aspects in the value chain like marketing strategies and communication, and on the place of the intervention in the value chain. As approximately ten times more food per capita food is wasted in developed than in developing countries, waste-reduction interventions there might have greater impact.
Despite a lack of proven, specifically direct, effects on food access in developing countries, reducing food wastage – post-harvest, in the distribution or processing stage of the food chain, or at the consumer level – is not a bad thing. In the long term it will often contribute to general food security, notably through positive effects on the environment. However, improving access to food, mainly for the poor and in the short term, calls for a more context-specific approach that addresses the value chain and food system as a whole.